How 'A Quiet Place' Breaks the Mold in Its Depiction of Disability
Having seen “The Intouchables,” a fantastic film, I feel little need to go see most films about disability. I won’t be watching “Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot.” Gus Van Sant is a good filmmaker, I like Joaquin Phoenix, and John Callahan was a great cartoonist. Still, I’ve seen “The Intouchables” so I don’t need to see this version of it. I didn’t go see “Me Before You” because I had already seen it when it was called “The Intouchables.” I didn’t read or see “Wonder” because I had already seen it when it was “Simon Birch.” Erasure comes in many forms, but in this instance it comes as reductivism. Disability stories are usually one-note affairs and I no longer have any interest. I hate to be so cynical but I’m over the parade of feel-good stories about a caretaker or friend meeting a tough but lovable person with a disability who teaches them that it just takes a can-do spirit to overcome whatever ails you before dying or “learning to live again.”
Like I said, I already saw “The Intouchables.”
So imagine my surprise when a film managed to slip under my defenses and show one of the most progressive and compelling portrayals of disability in film. Simultaneously nuanced and transgressive, unsentimental yet not afraid to show disabled form, and most of all wrapping all this in a high tension action thriller, far outside the disability genre ghetto. No, not “Skyscraper.”
“A Quiet Place.”
This 2018 horror-thriller contained some of the most important steps forward in the approach to stories about disability, and I thought it would be a good opportunity to break down the major issues with these portrayals in the context of such a great film.
Before we begin, a few caveats. There will be major spoilers from this point forward. I will not be discussing John Krasinski’s insistence on casting a deaf actress; there are plenty of articles on this topic. I will be tackling production challenges for people with disabilities at a later date, including casting. For now, this is more focused on stories. Finally, as with any discussion of art, this can feel very personal, so if I or someone in the comments critique a film you enjoy, please remember we are not criticizing you. Differing opinions are crucial in art criticism.
Right, on to the show.
“A Quiet Place” is a post-apocalyptic horror-thriller about a family trying to survive after nigh-invincible monsters that hunt by sound, have pushed humanity to the brink of extinction. Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (John Kransinski) Abbott are rugged farmers who try to impart as many survival skills on their children, Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Marcus (Noah Jupe). The family uses inventive ways to navigate the world soundlessly, but Evelyn’s pregnancy and the death of their son Beau threatens to destroy their fragile harmony. The twist is that Regan is deaf, and the family communicates almost exclusively through sign language.
A well known trope in films and television shows about disability is the “Suffering Angel.” The Suffering Angel is a disabled character who exhibits a grace and acceptance regarding their supposedly afflicted circumstances. This offers the able-bodied characters a frame of reference for their own issues and serves as as way to say, “if they can deal with that problem, you can handle this.” This is perhaps the last of old school tropes about disability that still exists in modern entertainment and it’s easy to see why. While it’s outwardly apparent that showing a character with a disability as a bitter or villainous misanthrope is damaging, this archetype is more subtly damaging. Instead of outright vilifying the disabled, the Suffering Angel strips them of any agency and a careless filmmaker can follow this damaging trend while believing themselves to be doing some measure of good.
Krasinski and his writing team are not careless filmmakers and the way they sidestep this trope is remarkable in its simplicity. They don’t call attention to Regan being deaf in the opening scenes, so when it does come up, it is only a part of her character and her journey. We already know this character as a smart, capable, but in one fateful moment, careless teenager. The Suffering Angel only has their condition to offer, which lowers them to sympathy device, but Regan is much more than that. No one is particularly sympathetic to Regan because she’s deaf. The world of the film is so brutal and hostile, Regan being deaf is pretty low on the list of issues facing the Abbot family. Further, her relationship with her family, and specifically her father, Lee, is complicated and not because she is deaf. It’s complicated because she got her brother killed, and Regan and Lee are struggling to navigate this tragedy in a world defined by tragedy. Beau’s death is another great character moment and a great moment for the portrayal of disability in the film.
On an overall filmic level, this is the moment in which the film sets the stakes. Seeing a child killed so brutally removes any plot protection from the rest of the family. If Beau can die so abruptly, anyone else can. Shifting the focus back to Regan, this moment defines her journey, and it does so completely separately from her disability. Her journey is one of absolution because of her fateful mistake with Beau. By the time the film acknowledges that Regan is deaf, we’re invested in her as a multifaceted person with depth and not a plot device. This is a remarkable way to give a disabled character depth without defaulting to base sentimentality. Regan now has to earn her redemption, as would any other character. By giving her a more complex journey, we expect more from her, which very few films do with their disabled characters.
Hearing Both Sides
Now anyone who’s seen the film is probably screaming at their screen because I’m making it sound like “A Quiet Place” completely erases Regan’s disability, and it absolutely does not. It considers the implications of deafness in a world where silence is survival in a way that manages to make this condition both a compelling narrative tool, and present a more truthful portrayal of growing up with a disability.
The most prominent way this is accomplished is in how the family treats Regan’s signing and by extension her deafness. Instead of placing her on a pedestal as a blessing for her condition in this post apocalyptic landscape, which is absolutely a mistake one can envision a less thoughtful filmmaker making, it is seen as one less thing to worry about. Her deafness isn’t fetishized, it’s a survival tool, as it pertains to silent communication. Conversely, Lee’s insistence on perfecting his daughter’s hearing aids has nothing to do with his discomfort with an imperfect form. Rather, it fits comfortably into Lee’s intensity when it comes to trying to give his children the best possible chance at survival. Regan’s deafness can hamper that, so he is constantly trying to perfect the hearing aids.
Her constant frustration that the aids don’t work is handled extremely well too. I’ve certainly had those moments with adaptive technology that isn’t working. You just want to throw your hands up and say, “stop, no more, let me be.” When Regan throws off her hearing aids and refuses to try again, I felt that one, because I’ve been a teen with a disability and sometimes it’s overwhelming, even when people are trying to make your life better.
It’s impossible to reduce the experience of having a disability to a singular idea, which is what most films try to do. This is partially an issue with the medium; film itself is singular whereas literature can be engaged to tell a story in a number of ways. Still, the existence of shows like “Speechless” suggests that the medium is not to blame because I feel “Speechless” commits the same sins of reduction and oversimplification in a long format medium. “A Quiet Place” manages to accomplish all of this without sacrificing its thriller premise and overall tone.
To conclude, what makes “A Quiet Place” special is that it’s not trying to make disability special. It’s the definition of a people first film. The characters come first and their flaws, disability or otherwise, are woven into the fabric of their person. Disability has the potential to be a profound and impactful narrative tool like any other aspect of the human condition. What holds it back is the inability of writers and directors to see beyond the surface conditions and dig into how this interacts with the more universal aspects of human life. In that way, it is no different than race, sexual orientation, gender or age. The best stories are the ones that find a way to plug into the collective unconscious and speak to something beyond the subject matter. So many filmmakers have a mental block preventing them from taking this next step with storytelling about disability.
John Krasinski, Scott Beck, and Bryan Woods do not have this problem and “A Quiet Place” speaks volumes as a result.